What does cancer look like?


It is hard to look at myself in many of Jon’s photos. I have struggled with this from the beginning. Whether it was the reality of being captured grossly overweight and bald…or just capturing me with twisted expressions…it is not always easy to look at Jon’s photos. Other people may have a different response. I am glad to have them don’t misunderstand me. It’s just very humbling in some ways. I do not like my strange faces and the fact that I clearly use extensive hand gesturing when I speak. I look like I am speaking in bold strokes. It looks odd.

On the other hand I am glad to have these beautiful images of my children and family. I loved pictures of my forlorn Jesse. Pensive and brooding. I liked the images of the twins being playful and still apprehensive about being photographed. And Clay is so cute in many of the shots. I feel blessed to be able to look at these. I also know that to have a documented image of chemo may be good for someone else. What does a person on chemo look like? Prior to my diagnosis I was not even sure what chemotherapy was. And I had no idea that it was typically administered via a sub-dermal port placed in the chest.( awake, out patient with local anesthesia). In many ways, my desire to demystify cancer worked. I have tried to explain all the inner workings of chemo, surgery, and radiation. I think I do this in the hopes that it will be less frightening. For cancer patients and their loved ones. Who knows? I just felt compelled to share what was happening/what is happening in the belief that it would connect us. I did not want to be sick in isolation.

So I made my cancer public. I am on display emotionally and physically. In photos. In my own words on the blog. In the words of others in an article. It is a gift and a curse. And while I may feel critical about what I write and the images I see,  I imagine it is cathartic for us all.Daily I feel compelled  to post honestly about my life and health. And to note where I struggle, because we all struggle. I do not think one needs to experience this first hand to imagine the nature of the illness. And I think it many ways it has made me far more empathetic in general to what it means to be sick and well and to learn from tragedy.

My public cancer feels private sometimes when I do not write anything for several days. And at times, that feels good too. And even though many have commented on how good I look I still have cancer. I am still on chemo. I am still fat. This is what cancer looks like for me. I am not “green”, but I occasionally feel sea sick. I am tired but I still try to do everything. And I love Jon’s photos even the images that make me feel uncomfortable. None of this is really that comfortable anyway. That’s life though. Most of it is kind of uncomfortable. The weirdness of the new. And for me the strangeness of having public cancer but much of the time wanting to hide. But I don’t. Here is my cancer fat, bald, and with lipstick on. Here are my cancer words about acceptance, God, and love. This is what my cancer looks like.

8 Responses to “What does cancer look like?”

  1. Donna Arnold says:

    HI Andrea:
    From SC…..it is always a treat to read your blogs….your story has touched lives all over the world….you have many admirers, fans, and supporters….and your blogs are a tremendous help to oh so many….
    You know, when I looked at the pic of you on this blog…it reminded me of something….
    One evening when Cat was bald, we were in a Japanese restaurant having dinner. Her color was equivalent to paste, with a beautiful, round, bald head…anyway, we were sitting…she was having one of her worst ever days, as far as looks and general feeling over all…a stranger walked up to us, and he leaned over to her, and said, “you are so beautiful, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, and he said…my wife is a breast cancer patient as well…at that time, she walked up and smiled and intorduced herself to us…she had the most curly, beautiful, thick head of hair, about 3 inches long….she was a year into her treatment…tears just rolled down Cat’s face…she said that is the kindest thing anybody ever said to me….I will never forget that wonderful man…he stopped in a busy dining room to make a woman feel special….special he had noticed her, and he wasn’t afraid to speak to her….special that someone cared enough to make her day, to KNOW what she must be feeling…we cried about it later that night…
    We have a Caring Bridge website for her, and a journal I keep online for me….it helps…we have pics as well…
    What helps us is that we can, and do, have great converstions that don’t involve CANCER topics at all….aren’t those great?
    Hang in there, kid…..hugs from the SC gals…..

  2. joshua says:

    i hear ya. those photos are gonna be great for years (you can also enjoy/hate them for years!).

  3. megan says:

    you do speak in bold strokes, you write in bold strokes too. you look like you in these pictures. and so it is a sweet pleasure to sit down in the afternoon and take a gander at you, and the kids. (if only there were a pic of you picking up the dog crap, now that i would use as wallpaper on my computer…that i would print and frame!) thank you for giving us all of this time, and not retreating. you simply haven’t stopped being you, even when you’re seasick. i love you.

  4. Heather says:

    You are beautiful with your cancer, your fat AND especially your lipstic.
    I have to say my favorite picture of you out of the whole barage is the one of you with the henna on your head. It is absolutely wonderful and it inspires others to say that they too can live with cancer instead of saying they’re dying from it, in spite of the medical facts.
    My son had to do a report over the weekend about heros and he asked me what a hero was and all I could say was your name. Not Neil Armstrong or MLK, while they are large scale heroes, you are a hero on a smaller scale, but no less important. So I did my own “What is a hero?” report and it was called Andrea Collins Smith a true hero for the little people.
    Hope your having a great day, Andrea.

  5. maggie says:


    my names maggie and years ago sherri and i used to spend most of our south st nights at tattooed moms. you entertained us- and in alot of ways, it was such a memorable time.

    after a few years in LA i recently moved back to philly and came across your blog out of curiosity in a way- reading about a woman i did not think i knew, and hoping to offer her a bit of anonymous support thru reading her lovely words. i spent the entire night reading your archives- transfixed and sometimes teary.

    and the pictures? the same smiling gorgeous you!

    im dedicated to you now. ive shared your story with sherri, and we are smiling daily in your direction.

    loads of love.

    in the support of old friends,

  6. Julie says:

    Dear Andrea … as one of the friends who say that you are looking great….I was blown away by you on New Years eve at the benefit, you look great to me because…1. You were smiling non-stop, 2. Singing along with every word that Alec was singing ( the essence of a Rocker Mum) and 3. The short hair looks great, very Punk!
    Your happiness and peace were infectious, and I was so glad that so many people came to the show, Love Julie

  7. Funambulator says:

    Hi Andrea – I found your blog after Googling “What does cancer look like.” I’m a breast cancer survivor too – IDC, though, not IBC. I finished chemo a couple months ago and I still sometimes find myself morbidly Googling things like this and trying to make sense of what happened to me (and trying to believe that it really happened).

    Anyway, I just wanted to leave a note here and say thanks for sharing. I have my story and my post-surgery, chubby, bald pictures online too, and I love getting notes from people who stumbled onto them and then felt less alone and afraid – so I’m writing a note to you in the same vein. Thank you!

  8. leah says:

    hey the henna was really cool what a great idea!
    you are the coolest!